Can Sunderland hold their nerve in relegation battle?

Martin O'Neill

Martin O'Neill

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AFTER WEEKS of lingering on the fringes of the relegation battle, Sunderland plunged decisively into the dogfight with their inability to beat 10-man Norwich last weekend.

But now that the dust has settled on the draw with the Canaries, is the situation really as perilous as it suggests?

CHRIS YOUNG examines the developments in the battle to avoid the drop and Sunderland’s prospects of arresting their dramatic descent towards the relegation zone.

WEARY shakes of the head have been exchanged along the corridors of Wearside workplaces this week.

Those age-old debates over personnel and tactics have been put on ice; replaced by an air of desperation over where the next win – or even point – is coming from.

It was not supposed to be like this.

A sixth successive season in the top flight theoretically signalled that Sunderland were established as a Premier League force.

However scarce the moments of entertainment may have been this season, the Black Cats were still primed to labour over the finishing line after securing back-to-back January wins against West Ham and Wigan.

But a dramatic slump has seen that familiar scent of relegation creep back to the Stadium of Light and it is now arguably at its most pungent level since Ricky Sbragia’s stop-gap tenure.

Sunderland’s failure to beat 10-man Norwich City to cap a return of just two points from three invitingly winnable games, inevitably sparked an initial outcry of fury/resignation?sheer terror.

Five days on from the lumbering draw with the Canaries though, is Sunderland’s situation really as drastic as it seemed on first glance?

Scratching desperately for positives, Sunderland are at least a point closer to survival and realistically, only need to average a point per game from the final eight outings.

The Black Cats’ superior goal difference to the bottom four is effectively worth another point, too.

But it is the nature of the next four games on the back of a seven-match winless streak which has seen the bookmakers slash the odds on Sunderland going down to as little as 3/1.

Manchester United, Chelsea, the Tyne-Wear derby and Everton. It’s a run of games to send a shiver down the spine and one which has prompted such disenchantment from the return against Fulham, QPR and Norwich.

After a season in which Sunderland have offered only the most mundane of tales, the national media have suddenly cottoned on that the Black Cats could be a story.

The struggles of the manager once touted as the successor to Sir Alex Ferguson is an attractive tabloid hit.

But if Sunderland are to arrest a slide which puts them on a collision course with the Championship, Martin O’Neill’s side need to upset the odds over the next month.

Whether it be against a Man United side facing Chelsea in the FA Cup 48 hours later, a Chelsea outfit tackling their fourth game in nine days, the neighbours three days after the Europa League quarter-final or bogey team Everton, the next four cannot be classed as nothing-to-lose encounters.

If the Black Cats do come away with minimal spoils, then the pressure for three more attractive games on paper against Aston Villa, Stoke and Southampton will be overwhelming.

Emerging victorious in the next four is far from impossible.

QPR have won at Chelsea this season, Norwich have beaten Man United, while Everton have lost at Reading.

But on recent form, Sunderland inspire little confidence.

The pressure emanating from their relegation rivals only heightens the anxiety too, even if Sunderland still remain in charge of their own destiny.

Although Newcastle, West Ham, Norwich and Stoke will continue to preach that they still need to reach 40 points, it’s difficult to envisage the relegated sides coming from outside the bottom six. That was what made the two points missed against the Canaries so crucial.

Realistically, it’s a case of one from four, with Reading and QPR already having a toe dipped into the murky waters of the Championship.

Reading’s mindless decision to sack Brian McDermott will only hasten their demise. There is simply not enough quality in the Royals’ ranks, despite their brief revival at the turn of the year.

And although they created a sniff of a Great Escape with victory over Sunderland, QPR have left themselves with too much to do, even if they will see a Loftus Road encounter against Wigan in a fortnight as a last opportunity.

Defeat at Villa last Saturday was a mighty body blow for Harry Redknapp’s side. Five wins from eight remaining games for a side who have emerged victorious just four times all season requires unfeasible wizardry.

It will be between Southampton, Villa, Wigan and Sunderland to avoid the final tractor beam into the second tier.

The Saints produced one of the most baffling managerial decisions of the season by replacing Nigel Adkins with Mauricio Pochettino.

But despite a lack of English, the Argentine has avoided the strains of disharmony which his appointment could easily have produced.

Nine points from eight games is a decent return, particularly a crucial victory over an out-of-sorts Liverpool last Saturday.

With four of Southampton’s final eight games coming against mid-table sides with little to play for too, they have to be fancied to avoid an instant return to the Championship.

Villa’s weekend win was similarly vital and suddenly, after the most tumultuous of seasons, Paul Lambert’s side sense the ultimate reprieve.

They are still vulnerable, particularly defensively, but Villa are a goal threat - an asset Sunderland cannot boast at present.

Like the Black Cats, Villa’s run-in is a daunting one on paper, with games to come against Liverpool, Man United and Chelsea before a potentially crucial last-day showdown at Wigan.

But after three wins from the last five games, Villa have momentum, as do Wigan.

A decisive 3-0 win at Reading, a comprehensive FA Cup victory, followed by an admittedly fortuitous success over Newcastle, have sparked that “here we go again” mentality at the DW Stadium.

The Latics’ game-in-hand at Manchester City may offer minimal opportunity, but Wigan know the drill by this stage of the season. It’s escape time.

Plenty will fancy Wigan to emerge from the bottom three and plenty will also fancy Sunderland to take their place.

Certainly, on paper, O’Neill has more match-winners at his disposal than Roberto Martinez.

But theory counts for nought now. Only points matter.

In that department at least, Sunderland can boast a tangible advantage over Wigan and marginally over Villa.

But Sunderland still need at least another two wins to bathe in the sanctity of Premier League survival.

Just one would make an enormous difference to self-belief and perceptions of Sunderland’s place in the drop battle.

As the Black Cats have proved over the last seven games, though, getting that elusive win is not going to be easy.